Thursday, 27 March 2008

Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan: 5 March 2008

Dr Vivian Balakrishnan, Minister for Community Development, Youth and Sports, spoke in Parliament on 5 March 2008, when he rounded up the Committee of Supply debate on MCYS. He touched on my speech, and the relevant excerpts leading up to and following that reference are reproduced below.

I'm not quite sure what the reference to a "debating speech" was all about. I prefer not to speculate. In any case, whether or not a speech is a debating speech, is quite beside the point -- ultimately, what should matter is the content.

I will say though, that not all lawyers are debaters, and I most certainly am not and was not one. I must admit that part of me was both amused and secretly chuffed at the apparent suggestion that I'm a good debater, because the most I ever did was an intra-class debate in secondary school, and that was more than enough to show that I was quite lousy at it. The Minister is the debater, as he mentioned.

There is quite a lot of truth and merit to what the Minister says, about the causes of poverty. But even a casual reading of my speech will show that I did not advocate a bloated bureaucracy, as the Minister seems to suggest I did. I will, in a subsequent post, write a bit more about some post-Budget thoughts I have.

Speech by Minister Vivian Balakrishnan
5 March 2008

[...]

My current angst, when I talk about young people, is whether our children or our grandchildren, born in the midst of plenty, spend more time thinking about how to spend their inheritance. And sometimes even in this House, we hear debate that we are a rich country, we can spend more even if it means being wasteful. Instead of coming back to the basics that, yes, we do need safety nets, but we have to start with the family, and we have got to be self reliant, disciplined and hardworking. Because we must remember that, at the end of day, even when we talk about MCYS, money is important. Anyone who has been poor, directly or indirectly, will tell you money is very, very important. But money is also not enough. All the wealth in the world will not buy you happiness and success, nor will it eliminate all the social problems which we face. Those of us who do regular meet-the-people sessions, we see people coming with problems. Let me ask Members: do you really think their most fundamental problem is the lack of money? Is it a poverty of material wealth? Or is it usually a poverty of relationships? I think those of us who have been in this and lived long enough will agree that the real and bigger problem is the poverty of relationships.

So we all need families and we do need a compassionate society. And if we look around us, and we look at a child, we will know that the greatest predictor for failure is a dysfunctional family, if his parents are not there, if his parents do not care or do not know how to care, or his parents are physically in prison or because of addiction, gambling or whatever, and not there to provide that ballast and the emotional stability for the child.

But we also know that it is not just about families, because we all want a more compassionate, caring, a "softer" society. However, Singapore will fail, if our society degenerates into nothing more than a collection of successful individuals just achieving success and earning money for themselves and looking for pleasure and satisfaction for themselves. If we have no shared values, no shared ideals and no dreams, the Singapore experiment will fail, even if we have money and even if we have reserves.

One point I want to come back to in today's debate is I want Members to remember Mr. Sam Tan's brilliant speech last week. I was not here because I was overseas with the President, but I read his speech three times. He talked about how it is not a dilemma between the young and the old. It is not even a dilemma between the rich and the poor, but between head and heart. He said that the head knows we cannot be overly generous; the head knows that we sometimes have to be cruel to be kind. And yet the heart wants the poor to be rich and the weak to be strong. And he said that it is better that now we are preparing for all these problems before they become insoluble problems; the time to do it is now.

I also read with great distress Mr Siew Kum Hong's speech. I am a debater. That was a very brilliant debating speech. And I actually share his hopes when he said that he wants Singapore to be a more generous society that helps its most vulnerable members - beautiful words. But the danger was in the rest of his speech when he said, in order to fulfill this hope, we should be prepared to waste, we should be prepared to have a bloated bureaucracy, all in the name of helping people.

I believe in getting all the different actors on the social stage to do what they are best at. I believe in a small, efficient, rational, even calculating Government, because that is what governments can and should do best. I believe in a social service sector, a voluntary welfare sector led by many champions, people like Ms Denise Phua, no matter how much I disagree with her on points, I will always respect people like her because they do what they believe in, and they care and they care passionately about it.

When we say we want a more generous, compassionate, caring society, the lazy way out is to say, "We want the Government to be generous, compassionate and caring, and the Government can express that generosity, caring and compassionate by simply spending a lot of money." Raise taxes, spend a lot of money and pretend that we have achieved a generous society that helps people who are most vulnerable.

Our model is a small, efficient Government, with low taxes, so that people like Dr Loo Choon Yong can still continue cheerfully paying his taxes, because they are actually very low than if he were to live anywhere else in the world. But more than paying low taxes, we want him and people like him to donate money, time and attention to social causes which they care about. So I was very happy when I saw his name and Mr Sim Wong Hoo's name mentioned in the Forbes list of philanthropists.

What I am trying to spell to Members is a system in which individuals work hard, individuals look after their families, community organisations care and express the best parts of our heart, while the Government acts in the background carefully, rationally, logically and sensibly to make sure that the overall system functions. That is the context behind which I view every single policy, every single plan that my Ministry puts up.

[...]

14 comments:

Kaffein said...

Vivian:
All the wealth in the world will not buy you happiness and success, nor will it eliminate all the social problems which we face. Those of us who do regular meet-the-people sessions, we see people coming with problems. Let me ask Members: do you really think their most fundamental problem is the lack of money? Is it a poverty of material wealth? Or is it usually a poverty of relationships? I think those of us who have been in this and lived long enough will agree that the real and bigger problem is the poverty of relationships.

So we all need families and we do need a compassionate society...

---
First I snickered, then I rolled my eyes in disgust.

So the ball (poverty issue) has shifted to it's-not-government-problem but it's a family issue now.

But then who sets the policies in regards to inflation? Living in Australia, I've seen how the government tries to tackle inflation, not pass the buck. They may not have all the answers, but there are real debates.

Standard of living != cost of living

Cost of living means the cost of maintaining a certain standard of living.

In turn, standard of living refers to the quality and quantity of goods and services generally available to a certain class of people (for example, average Singaporeans).

Minister Vivian, let's see you take home 1/4 of your current salary for the better good of Singapore so that more can be shared among the poor.

Talk is cheap.

'Nuff said,
Kaffein

family man said...

http://forums.delphiforums.com/n/mb/message.asp?webtag=sammyboymod&msg=171848.1

Good afternoon sir,
is this a possibility for singaporeans? Given that CPF is our money to be withdrawn at age 55, can we hold a petition or something to show the govt that we do not agree to the Annuity scheme. Or does it have to go down to the voting booth only years from now, by which time the CPF life annuity would already be passed as law. I feel that if the CPF life is a good deal for citizens, we should be allowed to opt in to enjoy its benefits. Not something compulsory.

Kaffein said...

Re-reading it:
"When we say we want a more generous, compassionate, caring society, the lazy way out is to say, "We want the Government to be generous, compassionate and caring, and the Government can express that generosity, caring and compassionate by simply spending a lot of money." Raise taxes, spend a lot of money and pretend that we have achieved a generous society that helps people who are most vulnerable.

Our model is a small, efficient Government, with low taxes..."

---
Most people I come across in Australia want to work, and do they work hard. And they work smart too.

And mums here have 2-3 kids, balancing family, kids, school activities like driving them to classes and ECA and back etc, cook, manage household finances, etc.

And they don't have maids.

I'm not implying that Singaporeans are lazy, but to flippantly say that getting handouts will result in laziness is an insult to these people. Yes, there will always be people who find loopholes in government policies. However they are a minority.

For info, to get admin done like renting/buying a house, you need to show proof of employment and/or utilities/phone bills paid. To do that you need to be employed.

It happened in recent months in Australia: a couple of elderly patients died due to a viral outbreak in a home. This had caused the 2nd-in-command to the Health Minister to step down. Just because he felt it wasn't important enough to be highlighted to the top.

Can I say the same? Up till now, I have yet to know the reasons for Mas' escape. I have not seen any reports of the inquiry.

To quote: sorry is not enough, sorry also must explain.

I do not mind a small efficient government. But to pay millions to the small group who had time and again implemented policies which do not benefit (in my opinion) or sometimes make any sense (eg GST is to help the poor) to the majority of the citizens don't sit well with me.

But I thank you, Mr Siew. Debate, not debate, I could not care less how he categorized your speech. Perhaps he didn't like the way you revealed contents. To me, your words have brought out truths that some people refused to see or hear.

Kudos for the continued effort in being the voice of the common.

Cheers,
Kaffein

black feline said...

there are leaders...there are clowns...Dr. Vivian is neither.

lobo said...

"do you really think their most fundamental problem is the lack of money? Is it a poverty of material wealth? Or is it usually a poverty of relationships? I think those of us who have been in this and lived long enough will agree that the real and bigger problem is the poverty of relationships."

Personally... Yes, I do think so. When one is rich, there will be an abundance of 'relationships'. That is not to say that they will be still there when one becomes poor.

Also if the govt does not help them to break out of their cycle of poverty, they will never be able to grow relationships. They are forever slogging from day to night, when will they have time to build relationship?

Salary said...

This kind of reply from Minister Vivian:

"But the danger was in the rest of his speech when he said, in order to fulfill this hope, we should be prepared to waste, we should be prepared to have a bloated bureaucracy, all in the name of helping people."

is quite typical.

PAP thinks they are the only one know what is the right amount of welfare to spend. Leave it to others, they will bankrupt the country.

PM Lee made the following reply in 2005 budget debate:

'So if Mr Low Thia Khiang is thinking of campaigning in the next
election campaign to make Singapore like Finland, then I encourage
him, in the interest of transparency, to be upfront,' Mr Lee said.

'Don't just talk about the welfare benefits but show people the price
tag. Explain how you are going to fund this for the people. How are
you going to pay the bill? Who's going to pay the bill?'

nemesis said...

"But the danger was in the rest of his speech when he said, in order to fulfill this hope, we should be prepared to waste, we should be prepared to have a bloated bureaucracy, all in the name of helping people."

It is said that we can easily judge a person by the word he speak.

Look we have a same Vivan who said that Singaporean should strive to create the next Google or Youtube, but yet this is the same Vivan that say nothing should go to waste. Such double talk is the main reasons why these ministers less credibility and engaged in rhetoric. If we can't tolerate failure then we would have chance to innovate and breed world-class player. If we can't be generous to those who try but fail then we fail to build resilence and character into people. What is a waste if people appreciate the 'waste' that help in a non-economical way ? Doesn't Vivian imply that failure is a waste too since success is all that matter to him ?

Given handout doesn't bleed complacency as Vivian will happily oppose because it is not that this handout is a million dollars like minister's pay where one could live till death. The handout instead is a paltry hundred for dollars that barely last two months even one stay frugal in the forever-rising cost country. Moreover, the handout is politically or economically linked and it is given only given if to meet certain agenda (as carrot for election, as forth-coming GST hike etc). Therefore Vivian shouldn't even that it is very noble of Government to give handout as though it is the best thing ever to give to people. Remember other countries don't give handout because the people oppose the government of 'robbing' people of money in return for small paltry sum. Only in Singapore can this practice be glorified due to lack of human rights and voice.

Siew Kum Hong, I like to thank you for speaking on the behalf of the people. Vivan should be embarrassed to say that he is a debater because his arguments are flaw and full of loopholes that cannot stand scrutiny because the his argument is generally defensive like most gahmen.

Judging from the words spoken by the gahmen, I doubt that they really understand what is going on the real world. They could only understand rhetoric and good old world because that is where their million dollars are pegged to.

family man said...

SM Goh says they will cap price rises to fight inflation. I get sick when I hear that as far as THIS government is concerned, this does not include our restructured hospital prices, our University and poly prices, our ERP and other stat boards like HDB, LTA etc. Our govt has really become toothless when it comes to such prices. uniquely singapore with a lot of sound bites.

family man said...

Vivian warned against you...: 'we should be prepared to have a bloated bureaucracy, all in the name of helping people.'
I read the new cabinet line up and wonder - why do we have such a bloated cabinet? What purpose does the MM and SM serve in our unique cabinet. If PM Lee needs help from his Father and the (Holy) Goh, it should come from PM Lee $3mil paycheck - not additional tax payer's money. If SM Goh needs to go to India to boost trade, that should come from Minister of Trade and Industry paycheck.
Uniquely singapore.

Lim Soon Chung said...

At least you managed to cause 'great distress' in addition to total disagreement.
Problem of relationships? This sounds like a new one but it really is in the classic'SomebodyElse'sProblem' category of excuses perfected by governments worldwide. So people are poor because they all effed themselves up in the first place with addiction and crime. Really???? The leading cause of death for these poor people must be drowning in rhetoric.

There's so much arrogance in Vivian B it's revolting. He rejects your proposal but it's all "I'm not going to do what Siew said cos he doesn't understand our high performance government". He must surely be the best example of the compassionate Singaporean. I wonder if he has a small and very efficient toilet in his home because he's so full of crap.

Siew Kum Hong said...

To all: I must confess, I am a little surprised at the number of passionate responses this posting has elicited. Thank you all, for your comments.

I wrote: "There is quite a lot of truth and merit to what the Minister says, about the causes of poverty." And I stand by that. The more I find out about poverty -- and really, just struggling families -- in Singapore, the more it does seem that what the Minister described as the "poverty of relationships" is an important cause.

Husbands cheating on wives, in the process squandering hard-earned money that should have gone to the family. People gambling and smoking, instead of saving or spending on the children. Women having to work two jobs while raising kids, and even kids and teenagers having to work part-time or help their mothers run businesses instead of working, because of deadbeat husbands/dads. Mothers running off with another man, heartlessly abandoning their children. Families not helping out family members or relatives, because of estranged ties for whatever reason.

All of these reflect the so-called "poverty of relationships" that the Minister spoke about. And they often surface in poor families.

But acknowledging that truth, is different from inferring cause-and-effect. It is, to me, not unequivocal that the so-called "poverty of relationships" is the only or primary result of "poverty of material wealth", or that it is implausible or unknown for the "poverty of material wealth" to lead to a "poverty of relationships".

Even if the cause-and-effect suggested by the Minister is true, it is not clear to me that the Government's policies specifically target this so-called "poverty of relationships", or that even if they do, that they have been successful. The fact of the matter (and I don't think anyone can really dispute this) is that in recent years, an under-class has begun developing in Singapore. Is the Minister's statements then an admission that the Government's policies have failed to address this "poverty of relationships"?

Perhaps by its very nature, this "poverty of relationships" is something that is difficult, if not impractical or impossible, for the Government to address. In which case, do we simply close our eyes and also ignore the "poverty of material wealth"? Or do we attempt to alleviate some of that "poverty of material wealth" and hope that it leads to a positive development in alleviating the "poverty of relationships"?

Nobody in the debate, least of all myself, argued for raising taxes or increasing the bureaucracy. Indeed, my point is that we have more than enough revenue already, such that we can afford to spend a little - not a lot - more on helping people. We don't need to raise taxes, and nobody has argued for that.

Similarly, while there is some validity in the point about bureaucracy, I have to ask: if there is a gap in the social assistance net, and we expect charities to fill that gap, then will the charities not require their own infrastructure and bureaucracy? Doesn't it simply mean that the Minister is implicitly arguing for the burden of maintaining the infrastructure and bureaucracy necessary to administer the assistance, to be borne by the private sector? If aid must be administered, and bureaucracy is necessary to do it, then does society as a whole really save on bureaucracy, if it still has to be maintained by charities? And if there are multiple charities working on that gap, are we not unnecessarily replicating the infrastructure and bureaucracy across multiple charities?

I suppose governments, by their very nature, tend to be a bit more inefficient than private enterprise, and the Minister's comments seem to imply that our Govenrment is no different. But that is where the profit motive exists. It is not clear to me that private charities are necessarily more efficient than governments. Furthermore, isn't there an at least plausible argument about potential economies of scale?

So while I still believe that there is some truth to what the Minister said, I must disagree with his conclusions from those truths.

palmist said...

I want to thank you for speaking out for the common man.

I am disappointed with the replies to the queries that you put forth. Most of the time they either misunderstand the question or attemp to side step the question. Drawing erroneous conclusions and presenting argument that don't hold any water.

The palimentary debate becomes a place to defend positions, instead of working for the betterment of society. Perhaps I am naive to believe that should be the case.

I vaguely remember that the budget debate ended earlier than expected. They saw it as a success but I think it is a failure to properly address issue and glossing over the questions. Going through the motion.

I believe there must be change in the way the MCYS think about giving to the poor.

Spending more does not equate to being wasteful as Dr Balakrisnan suggests.

Can I say it is wasteful to provide my elderly parents with a good meal. Maybe I should just provide them with 2 meals a day. They will survive.

How do we create a compassionate society when the leaders of the society does not show compassion. The message that I get, is fend for yourself, we are not going to give you any help. Following our leaders, everyone in singapore looks out for themselves because they know that no one is going to be looking after them. Tough luck if misfortune befalls.

If our leaders do not show generosity and compassion, I am afraid it is very hard for the society to be a generous and compassionate one.

While money is important MCYS should not take pride in cost cutting and money savings. Their KPI as their name suggest should be how much the community has developed, instead of how much they saved for the country. I think they are focusing on the wrong agenda.

Lastly, the do as I say not as I do formula don't really work. If MCYS wants a more compassionate singapore then they shouldn't be too tightfisted about giving. No one is asking the government to squander our wealth. The people are asking for understanding and compassion from the government.

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